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Rural Georgia leads race to the bottom in per capita income. The question is, why?

The week before Thanksgiving, I served as the lead-off speaker for a day-long symposium, sponsored by Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute, on Georgia’s urban-rural divide. About an hour before I started my presentation, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) put out its annual report on county-level per capita income. It’s a shame I couldn’t have gotten an advance look at the data; it would have provided a great addition to my presentation.

I’ve now spent two or three days rolling around in the data and can already see that I’ll be able to milk several solid posts out of the BEA spreadsheet. For starters, though, I’ll focus on Georgia’s at least mildly surprising showing at the bottom of the nation’s per capita income pile.

One useful thing about the BEA report is that it includes data on more than 3,100 counties and comparable governmental jurisdictions. That makes it possible to compare Georgia to its neighbors and, indeed, the entire country. It also makes it possible to document the extent of the divide between Georgia’s haves and have-nots.

The first unhappy headline out of this data dive is that Georgia counties occupy the bottom two places on the national list. Wheeler County finished 3,114th out of 3,114 counties with a 2020 PCI of $21,087, just behind Telfair County at 3,113th with a PCI of $22,644. As a frame of reference, those figures are less than one-fourth of Fulton County’s state-leading per capita income of $95,683 and about one-tenth the PCI of $220,645 in Teton County, Wyoming, which ranks No. 1 nationally.

Perhaps even more troubling, Georgia is home to 10 of the bottom 30 counties nationally. The only other states with more than two counties in the bottom 30 are Florida with six and South Dakota with four. Because Georgia has so many more counties than most states, it might be possible to argue that the number of counties on any such list isn’t all that important. So, let’s look at population.

Of the 10 states with counties in the Bottom 30, Georgia had a larger share of its population living in those counties than any other state except South Dakota, whose four counties in the Bottom 30 were made up largely or entirely of impoverished Indian reservations. As the table at right shows, some 1.2 percent of Georgia’s overall population resides in a Bottom 30 county; except for South Dakota, all the other states’ Bottom 30 populations were below one-half of one percent.

Still untroubled? Okay, let’s broaden the focus.

As I’ve already suggested, the BEA data allows you to sort and rank all 3,114 counties (and comparable jurisdictions) nationally. Having done that, I’ve also sliced the nation, and the state, into quartiles. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 104 counties posted 2020 PCIs in the bottom national quartile.

Those 104 counties are home to 28.5 percent of Georgia’s 10.7 million residents — a higher percentage of people living in the bottom quartile than any of its adjoining states except Alabama, where the number is 29.6 percent. This table shows the total populations and quartile splits for Georgia and all its contiguous neighbors.

I’ll have more to say about this in a subsequent post, but one initial takeaway (in my view) is that it’s pretty good illustration of the extent of the chasm between Georgia’s haves and have-nots.

To widen the lens even further, Georgia has more people living in the bottom quartile than any other state in the nation, including Texas, Florida and all the other states with larger populations. Some 3.05 million Georgians live in the bottom PCI quartile.

Texas, with nearly three times Georgia’s population, has only 2.75 million residents living in the bottom quartile. In Florida, which has double Georgia’s population, the number of residents in the bottom quartile is 2.01 million. North Carolina, with essentially the same population as Georgia, has nearly 1.3 million fewer people in its bottom tier counties.

Of the 779 counties in TIGC’s bottom quartile, 104 are in Georgia; only four other states — Arkansas (54 counties), Kentucky (65), Mississippi (55) and Missouri (54) — had more than 50 counties in the bottom quartile.

That rural Georgia’s 2020 per capita income is so low is not in and of itself all that surprising. But that the state performs so much worse than neighboring states like Florida and North Carolina is frankly more than a little disconcerting and a bit of a mystery. How those states have been able to do a better job of moving their populations out of the bottom PCI tier and up the economic ladder is a question that needs to be answered.

Watch this space.

The interactive map below highlights Georgia’s 159 counties based on their National PCI Quartile. The lighter the shade, the higher the quartile.

The interactive table below shows 2020 per capita income data for all 159 Georgia counties, along with their state and national rank and the national quartile into which each county falls.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Don Yates #

    Commentary: A Vital Statistic
    January 1, 2011 George Berry
    As a political accomplishment, one can only stand in awe of the recent Republican sweep of Georgia elective offices. Republicans now occupy all of the state’s major elected leadership positions, and for the foreseeable future the state’s key political battleground will be the Republican primary.

    It’s a wonder the Democrat/African-American coalition that ruled Georgia for 50 years held on so long. Ideologically, there is not that much difference between the conservative Democrat of the past and today’s conservative Republican.

    As Gov. Nathan Deal begins his administration, he would do well to consider the over-arching accomplishment that defines Georgia’s advancement over the last half century: the progress we have made toward economic parity with the rest of the nation.

    That progress can be best defined by comparing the per capita income of Georgians to that of citizens of other states.

    For decades Georgians lagged in this elemental measure. As late as the onset of World War II, we were barely at 60 percent of the national average per capita income. This is not an abstract but rather an intensely personal statistic. It measures how much education one can afford, how much healthcare one receives, whether one can take his children to a dentist and even how many culturally enriching experiences one can have.

    More dramatically, low per capita income translates into higher infant mortality rates and shorter lifespans.

    Exactly when Georgia got serious about becoming the economic equal of other states is debatable. Some date it from the demise of the county unit system and the election of Carl Sanders as governor in l962. Others say it began earlier, during World War II, with the coming of the Bell Aircraft plant and military bases and their high-paying jobs.

    Nonetheless, Georgia began a single-minded march toward economic parity that is the defining legacy of the past 50 years.

    As the Democrat dominance wanes, it is only fair to pay tribute to the leaders who were in charge when that progress was made.

    In 1996, according to Georgia State Univers-ity’s Fiscal Research Center, Georgia reached 95 percent of the national per capita average, but regressed to 88.5 percent in 2008.

    The center has done an analysis of the reasons for our fall. Despite the fact that our populations of youth and the elderly have grown faster than other states’, the basic reason for our relative lack of progress is simply that we have lost high-paying jobs and replaced them with lower-paying jobs. Only Michigan has fared worse than Georgia in this vital statistic.

    How Georgia was initially successful in closing the gap had to do with increasing educational opportunities, infrastructure (interstate highways and Atlanta’s airport), aggressive marketing, the extraordinary growth of Metro Atlanta and the fact that every governor made economic development an overriding priority.

    No less important was ensuring that Georgia and Atlanta presented an image of good race relations compared to other southern cities. Great leaders like Robert Woodruff, former Mayors William B. Hartsfield and Ivan Allen, Jr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made the case that racial harmony meant better economic opportunities for all our people, and they were right.

    If Georgians earned at the national average, they would be producing more than $300 billion in additional earnings that would be subject to state income and sales taxes. Think how far those dollars would go toward solving the state’s problems.

    The new governor and his team should keep before them one great criterion: “How will what we do move Georgians toward 100 percent of the national average per capita income?” This can inform almost all decisions, even social policy. Reducing teen pregnancies to single parents, for instance, would have a significant long-term impact.

    If our new governor can improve this vital statistic, he will be assured of a successful administration. Because it is a measure easily calculated, everyone can keep score. It is in all of our best interests that Gov. Deal be the one to celebrate that day when Georgia finally achieves 100 per- cent of the national average per capita income.

    November 30, 2021
  2. charles gordon McKemie #

    Mr. Hayslett has a lot of good data here. but it leaves me wondering, with the # of college graduates increasing 10X since 1970 in the state, would any amount of increased educational attainment have prevented the rural economic decay GA and many other states have experienced? the decline of the industrial/agricultural economy and centralization of technology/service economy jobs to urban areas has relentlessly eliminated opportunity outside of areas with critical infrastructure. (broadband, capital, trained workforce, etc.) Those college graduates are mobile and can vote with their feet. they have chosen to live in/near Terminus.

    December 2, 2021

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